The importance of spiritual disciplines

1 Samuel 3:4-5 - The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

The Old Testament book of 1 Samuel begins with the back story of the prophet Samuel, who was miraculously born to a barren woman named Hannah and then given to Eli the priest as a servant to God. In 1 Samuel 3, we see the young Samuel sleeping every night in the temple of the Lord near the ark of the covenant. In those days, we read, the word of the Lord was rare (1 Samuel 3:1), but the ark was the place where God’s presence was the most powerful.

One evening, as Samuel is lying by the ark, the Lord calls him. Samuel assumes that the voice he is hearing is Eli’s, and so three times he responds to the call by going to Eli. After the third visit, Eli realizes that God is speaking to Samuel, and he tells the boy to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel lays back down by the ark, the Lord calls again for him, Samuel responds with “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and the Lord gives him a message.

I think of this story when I consider the reality of spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, or fasting. If you have ever made these endeavors a regular habit in an attempt to get to know God better, you know that it can at times be frustrating. You have probably noticed that there are many times when prayer feels like talking to the ceiling, when Bible reading does not bring about great revelations, or when fasting just leaves you with an empty stomach. We often feel like these exercises should be more meaningful, yet there are many times that they do not seem to bear much fruit.

But then, in God’s timing, whenever He so pleases, He shows up. We are overcome by His presence as we kneel in prayer. The Word that we read speaks directly into our situation. And in our fasting, we find Him satisfying our hunger with more of His presence.

Samuel did not cause God to speak by his actions. However, by spending every night by the ark, he put himself in a position to hear from God. In the same way, I believe that spiritual disciplines are not a transaction whereby we do our duty and God responds in kind, but they are a way of putting ourselves in God’s presence on a regular basis, so that we will be ready to hear when God decides to speak. We may pray and read our Bible 99 days in a row and feel like we are not experiencing God, but on that hundredth day, God may show up in power, and because we are “by the ark,” so to speak, we experience His presence and hear His voice.

So do not be discouraged when your times of prayer, Bible reading, worship, or other disciplines feel dry and fruitless. You are like Samuel, lying down near the ark, saying, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And when He chooses to speak, you will be there to hear Him.

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